Jimmy Westlake: See rare transit of Mercury Monday
May 3, 2016
Get ready for the tiniest eclipse of the sun visible from Earth. For the first time since Nov. 8, 2006, the planet Mercury will pass between the Earth and sun, and cast its tiny shadow onto our planet.
For seven-and-a half-hours Monday, Mercury will slowly transit all the way across the face of the sun, though, in Colorado, we won't see the entire event.
For us, Mercury will already be making its way across the sun when the sun rises at about 5:50 a.m. Monday. The transit begins at 5:12 a.m. and ends at 12:42 p.m., so we get to see all but 38 minutes of the event.
As viewed from Earth, Mercury's little disk is so tiny that a properly filtered telescope will be needed to watch this event. It cannot be seen with the unaided eye, even with a safe solar filter. Extreme caution should be used whenever attempting to view the sun, and if weather permits, the Colorado Mountain College SKY Club will have safe solar telescopes set up on the CMC Alpine campus for safe public viewing of this rare event.
Transits of Mercury happen about 13 times per century and always in the months of May or November. The next transit of Mercury after this one will occur Nov. 11, 2019.
Planet Venus can also transit the sun as seen from Earth, but these events are much more rare. They occur in pairs, separated by eight years, and then the pairs are more than a century apart. The last pair happened in 2004 and 2012, so the next pair of Venus transits won't happen until 2117 and 2125.
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Astronomers search for planets near other stars by watching for transits, similar to the one we will experience here, due to Mercury next week. When a far away planet passes in front of its star, the starlight is dimmed, ever so slightly. This periodic winking of the star's light tips off astronomers to the presence of a planet that would otherwise be invisible from Earth.
NASA's Kepler space telescope has monitored the same 150,000 stars for three years, watching for the telltale winks caused by transiting planets. To date, Kepler has detected nearly 5,000 exoplanet candidates, with more than 1,000 of those confirmed by follow-up observations with ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope.
The European Space Agency's Gaia space telescope is currently mapping and measuring one billion of the closest stars to Earth and could potentially turn up an additional 70,000 new exoplanets, by the time its mission is completed.
If you want to watch the transit of Mercury on Monday, visit the CMC Alpine Campus between 10 a.m. and noon and peep through one of our safe solar telescopes. The telescopes will be set up in the courtyard behind the Academic Building, outside the third floor entrance to the building.
Bring a hat and sunscreen to protect from sunburn. Weather permitting, we can all enjoy watching nature's tiniest eclipse together.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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